Stumbling upon the music of SubPixel – the nom de prog of New Paltz-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Matt Ross – is a bit like learning that there is an adept practitioner of the dark arts quietly doing his thing right in your own community, maybe several doors down. And you never knew, never imagined. It’s alarming. Think of the children. We all know where prog rock leads.
The new SubPixel album, The Wave, is a stunning feat of expansive, contrapuntal melody, high-detail arrangement and somewhat mind-boggling instrumental prowess. And it is all Ross, but for a few ringers on select tracks. Each composition was recorded both in live-instrument versions and versions programmed by Ross on a dirty eight-bit NES game system chip, and the two versions can be synched for full effect.
The legacy of classic progressive rock (oxymoron?) can be heard, distilled and disguised, in the formal and sonic ambitions of superbands like Radiohead and Muse and in many other lesser-known acts, but few people wave the pure prog flag quite this courageously these days. SubPixel is more in the line-oriented school of Frank Zappa and Gentle Giant than the castle rock of Yes and Genesis et alia. It is prog sans the pomp, but it is definitely prog.
When I asked Matt Ross how he had managed to develop shred-grade chops on so many instruments, he mumbled something about spending a lot of time alone and listening to too much Dream Theater (if one can mumble in an Instant Message). I already knew of Ross’s reputation as a virtuoso at self-effacement and the deflection of praise, so I didn’t push the issue. The vision of a quiet, self-effacing kid teaching himself sweep picking, polyrhythm and modal harmony in some Orange County bedroom moved me deeply.
But later, upon reflection, I detected another note in his evasion – something that was not simply a function of personal humility: Why, I think he was apologizing. He was apologizing for his chops. He was apologizing for the prog.
This is a common and genre-specific neurosis. It’s a prog thing. Not all technically adept musicians feel compelled to apologize for their skills. Certainly jazz and classical players don’t. “Jazz virtuoso” is practically a redundancy. Metal virtuosi (a close relative of prog virtuosi) are all in your face with it. They ain’t apologizing for nothing, and they speak with the authority of Odin. Masters of the oud, sitar, Peruvian flute, koto and berimbau seldom begin their concerts by apologizing for the precision and dexterity with which they are about to rock the high music of their cultures.
Anyway, it is an old and silly argument that pits the technically adept and theory-trained musician against the self-taught primitivist. The former feels entitled to respect (and a wage scale) by virtue of academic degrees, multiple fluencies, apprenticeships and imprimaturs. The latter contends that “technique” and “theory” stand, institutionlike, between the player and the pure expression of emotion that the people crave.
Both are being stupid. Different musics require different techniques, some acquired at greater expense than others. Be prepared to sweat white beads if you want to play Franz Liszt. Be prepared to sling your axe down to your knees and hammer your knuckles to blood if you want to play Johnny Ramone, for that is the only technique by which those savage and beautiful confessions can be forced from a guitar. It’s not all equal and it’s not “all good” – but it is all technique.
It seems to me that prog-rock was born of two roughly coincident developments in music technology: the LP and the synthesizer. The time constraints of the 45 defined the formal limits of the pop song itself, inspiring the no-nonsense, get-me-to-the-chorus economy of pop. Prog is not the only rock genre that owes its nature to the liberations of 33 1/3 RPM, but prog, on average, has fewer songs per side than any other style, and, without much jamming to fill the space, it has the most elaborate forms. Only in prog is it common to find that you like precisely 5/13ths of a single song.
It is harder to say why the synthesizer was so influential in turning what would have been another generation of British R & B wannabes into rock’s would-be serious composers. It might be the futuristic timbral properties of the synths themselves. It probably has more to do with how the new Moogs, Arps and the mighty Mellotron (a sampler, not a synthesizer) elevated the authority of keyboard players. Keyboard players, unlike guitarists, typically cut their teeth on classical music.
So why are fans and practitioners of progressive rock so marginalized and mocked? Prog hatred has roots as old as prog itself – and for much of it, prog has only itself to blame:
• Robes, some stitched with runes and Tarot symbols.
• A narrow definition of virtuosity that privileges the speedy execution of single-note runs in odd time signatures over the other dimensions of musical virtuosity – especially those most-human dimensions of feel, empathic interaction and spontaneity. Prog is somewhat prone to sounding like sneakers in a dryer.
• Pseudo-philosophical lyrics, the ambitions of which typically exceed the writer’s grasp: Fergus and the Seven Gates of Thule, Book IV, Canto XII: The Confessions of Theophilus the Elder to Cyrus the Worm.
• White, white, white.
But there’s something else – something having to with the endemic self-hatred of the intellectual class. Why is prog singled out for cruel belittlement and F-minus grades by critics and highbrows? Because it commits the cardinal sin of rock ‘n’ roll: artistic ambition. Prog asked to be admitted as high art, and high art just laughed: Request denied. It is dismissed as a particularly crass middle-class misunderstanding of what constitutes the art of rock. The genius of rock ‘n’ roll, you see, is its primitivism: the blissful lack of self-awareness and high purpose (the very things that critics can’t escape in themselves). As soon as you call what you do art, it ain’t. Just as Europeans famously complain that the genius of America is lost on those shallow Americans, so must the genius of rock ‘n’ roll always consist in something elemental, indefinable and unknown to itself. That’s why we need the critics to tell us when it’s there and when it’s not.
So prog can’t win the culture wars. Not a chance. All it can do is continue to provide a form, a legacy and a niche market for young musicians who want to rock but whose musical appetites are not fully sated by the one and the four and the five. Maybe some Bach played around the house spun its contrapuntal magic in their neural networks and they’ve been chasing that sound ever since. Maybe prog provides the only suitable organic form for their Tolkien- or Wagner-inspired imaginations.
The music of Matt Ross and SubPixel is a lot of things that we don’t normally associate with progressive rock: lithe and graceful; efficient and witty; brief. It moves right out of the gate and sustains as much deeper attention as you care to bring to it. It is good music and really needs no other descriptor. But for as long as genre bias exists, let’s call it Prog and Proud.
Please sample and buy The Wave by SubPixel at www.subpixel.bandcamp.com. Matt Ross also performs frequently with several local bands, including Los Doggies and Breakfast in Fur.